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'Marathon Boy' presents lessons of class and exploitation

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 10/26/2011, 6:52 p.m.

"A slum boy getting attention from everybody," said one Indian journalist when he spoke of Budhia Singh, the focus of the HBO documentary "Marathon Boy," which airs Nov. 3 at 8 p.m. Coming from nothing and making something of yourself is a common tale told on every block and in every neighborhood, city and country. But Singh's five-year chronicle of a toddler marathon runner is unique in the way it covers triumph, adversity, selflessness, selfishness, power and corruption.

Sold by his mother at the age of 3 for 800 rupees (approximately $16), Singh looked to be another "slum boy" who would live out the rest of his life as a beggar in the streets of Bhubaneswar, the capital of the state of Orissa in India.

Biranchi Das, a judo coach who ran an orphanage for slum children, took Singh into his home after bargaining with Singh's new "owner" and his biological mother to raise the kid himself. After a weird situation involving a punishment for cursing, he discovered Singh's special talent for running long distances. Das decided to nurture his talent to help him become an Olympic runner.

Director Gemma Atwal perfectly details the battles between Das and child welfare services, between Das and the committees who organize running events in the country and between Das and his own wife, who initially didn't approve of taking Singh away from his birth mother.

But Das continued to coach and push on, and by the time he was 4 years old, Singh had run almost 50 marathons and made global headlines.

As the viewer is engaged in the documentary, one might be led to believe that Das was pushing Singh for his own benefit and glory and not for the kid's benefit. The images of a tired and exhausted Singh, who said at the beginning of the film that he would do whatever "Sir" (his name for Das) would tell him, might be hard for some to take. But seeing the face of exploitation is always going to be hard to observe.

The brouhaha after a 40-mile run (a marathon is just over 26 miles) is the perfect demonstration of power, desperation, greed and sadness that should resonate with anyone with a heart. Doctors feared that the stress of running marathons would stunt the development of a 3- or 4-year-old's body. The situation between Das and Singh became a lightning rod for controversy in India, with entire talk shows devoted to the topic of how soon is too soon to "nurture" a potential athlete.

Shot beautifully around the Indian states of Orissa and Delhi, "Marathon Boy" is highly recommended for anyone interested in the issues of child welfare, sports and the exploitation of those less fortunate. The only thing this documentary could lose is the few animated sequences that accompany some of the stories the subjects tell during interviews. Everything else is presented by Atwal in a truthful and honest fashion.